El Niño increases the risk of lower Mississippi River flooding

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Munoz, Samuel E.
Dee, Sylvia G.
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Mississippi River floods rank among the costliest climate-related disasters in the world. Improving flood predictability, preparedness, and response at seasonal to decadal time-scales requires an understanding of the climatic controls that govern flood occurrence. Linking flood occurrence to persistent modes of climate variability like the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has proven challenging, due in part to the limited number of high-magnitude floods available for study in the instrumental record. To augment the relatively short instrumental record, we use output from the Community Earth System Model (CESM) Last Millennium Ensemble (LME) to investigate the dynamical controls on discharge extremes of the lower Mississippi River. We show that through its regional influence on surface water storage, the warm phase of ENSO preconditions the lower Mississippi River to be vulnerable to flooding. In the 6–12 months preceding a flood, El Niño generates a positive precipitation anomaly over the lower Mississippi basin that gradually builds up soil moisture and reduces the basin’s infiltration capacity, thereby elevating the risk of a major flood during subsequent rainstorms. Our study demonstrates how natural climate variability mediates the formation of extreme floods on one of the world’s principal commercial waterways, adding significant predictive ability to near- and long-term forecasts of flood risk.
© The Author(s), 2017. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. The definitive version was published in Scientific Reports 7 (2017): 1772, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-01919-6.
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Scientific Reports 7 (2017): 1772
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